Get Genrefied*: Graphic Novels

Every month, we’re highlighting one genre within YA fiction as part of Angela’s reader’s advisory challenge. So far, we’ve discussed horror, science fiction, high fantasy, mysteries and thrillers, verse novels, contemporary realistic fiction, and historical fiction. August’s focus is graphic novels, a wide, wide world that actually includes all genres under the sun.

The simplest definition of a graphic novel, as librarians use it, is a book-length comic. The term is actually a little misleading, since many of the books we generally call graphic “novels” – like nonfiction – are not novels at all. (Why we don’t just call them graphic books I will never understand. Can you tell it bugs me a little to have to call a nonfiction book a novel? It does.) A comic is sequential art, usually incorporating panels with speech bubbles or captions as opposed to traditional paragraphs of text. It’s the “sequential” that sets it apart from, say, a picture book.

The graphic novel format is incredibly broad, because it can really tell any kind of story you can imagine (both fiction and nonfiction). Graphic novels can include (but are not limited to):

  • Graphic adaptations of classics, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (The quality of these is incredibly spotty. Professional reviews are essential before selecting them for the library.)
  • Graphic adaptations of more current and popular titles, such as Twilight, Artemis Fowl, Beautiful Creatures, and the upcoming Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Speak.
  • Collections of complete story arcs featuring superheroes and other traditional comic book protagonists, such as the recent Avengers vs. X-Men. These are multiple issues of a particular comic book collected in a single volume. The volume will have a unifying story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Other continuous series that don’t necessarily fit into the superhero mold, such as My Boyfriend is a Monster.
  • Manga (Japanese comics). My knowledge of manga is limited, so I rely a lot on professional reviews and the teens to tell me what they want to read. Perennial favorites include Bleach, Naruto, and Fruits Basket.
  • Graphic novel spinoffs or side stories of popular tv series, including Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • And the books that we’ll be primarily focusing on in this guide: the standalones (or occasional short series), the more typical “novel” sort of book originally written as a book and not as a series of strips, single-issue comics, or based on a previous story in another format or media type. Examples of this include Anya’s Ghost and American Born Chinese. This category also includes some really excellent and creative nonfiction, such as My Friend Dahmer.

With such a broad topic, it’s helpful to know where to find more information. I’ve found the following resources valuable or interesting in one way or another in the years I’ve been selecting graphic novels for teens:

  • No Flying, No Tights is an invaluable resource that’s continuously updated with reviews of graphic novels for teens (plus some for younger kids and adults). It’s run by a teen librarian, and it caters to a librarian audience.
  • Comics Worth Reading is another blog worth checking out. They review titles and discuss news. They also have a section dedicated to comics by women.
  • First Second and Graphic Universe (graphic novel imprints of Macmillan and Lerner, respectively) both run blogs with information about graphic novels beyond plugs for their own books. Graphic Universe’s hasn’t been updated since 2012.
  • School Library Journal runs the Good Comics for Kids blog which discusses all things graphic novels for kids, including news and reviews.
  • Comics Alliance and Comic Book Resources are news and opinion sites about comic book culture. Neither are tied to any particular publishing house.
  • Kelly pointed this out this past weekend: The Richland Library has collected a list of graphic novels adapted from traditional books (both classic and contemporary).

There are several awards and professional recommended reading lists available for YA graphic novels:

  • The Eisner Awards, named after graphic novelist Will Eisner, are the biggie. They have a specific category for teens ages 13-17, but a lot of the adult titles honored will have crossover appeal.
  • The Cybils honor the best graphic novel for teens each year (I participated as a round 2 judge last year).
  • The ALA produces a list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens each year. Many of the titles on this list are books published for the adult market with crossover appeal. They also include a good bit of manga and superhero comics.
  • The Texas Library Association has the Maverick Graphic Novel reading list (the first of its kind in the nation), which helpfully divides the books into grades 6-8, 6-12, 9-12, and adult with teen appeal.

And finally, while most major publishing houses that produce traditional books also regularly put out some graphic novels each year (such as Candlewick and Houghton Mifflin), it’s good to also be aware of the major publishers and imprints dedicated to graphic novels. Note that most of the publishers listed below publish for all ages, with some books appropriate for a teen collection and some not:

  • First Second (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic, mainly middle grade with some crossover to YA)
  • Graphic Universe (an imprint of Lerner)
  • Papercutz (mainly children’s and middle grade with a lot of licensed content that appeals to all ages)
  • Fantagraphics
  • Drawn + Quarterly
  • The Center for Cartoon Studies (this is actually a school for aspiring professional graphic novelists that puts out some thoughtful, unique stuff)
  • Major monthly comic book publishers (whose issues are then collected into graphic novels), including DC, Marvel, IDW, Dark Horse, Image, Dynamite, Oni Press, and BOOM! Studios
  • Manga publishers in the United States, including Viz, Tokyopop, and Yen Press

Below are some graphic novels for teens published within the last year or so. All descriptions come from Worldcat or Goodreads.

A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached: Living in the midst of civil war in Beirut, Lebanon, Zeina and her
brother face an evening of apprehension when their parents do not return
from a visit to the other side of the city.

William and the Lost Spirit by Gwen de Bonneval, illustrated by Matthieu Bonhomme: In this graphic novel that combines medieval legends and folklore, the
brutish feudal world, and devotion to family, William, the grandson of
an elderly feudal lord in the thirteenth century, sets out on a
labyrinthine journey to discover his father’s killer.

Broxo by Zach Giallongo: Broxo, the only surviving member of a tribe of barbarians, spends his
time on a mountain hunting and avoiding the man-eating walking dead
until everything changes when Zora, a foreign princess, arrives on the
mountain seeking Broxo’s lost tribe.

Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge: Wilhelmina “Will” Huxstep is a creative soul struggling to come to terms
with a family tragedy. She crafts whimsical lamps, in part to deal with
her fear of the dark. As she wraps up another summer in her mountain
town, she longs for unplugged adventures with her fellow creative
friends, Autumn, Noel, and Reese. Little does she know that she will get
her wish in the form of an arts carnival and a blackout, courtesy of a hurricane named Whitney, which forces Will to face her fear of darkness.

Peanut by Ayun Halliday: Nervous about starting her sophomore year at a new high school, Sadie
decides to make herself more interesting by claiming to be allergic to
peanuts, but her lie quickly spirals out of control.

Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez: Middle child Huey stages Captain America plays and treasures his older brother’s comic book collection almost as much as his approval. “Marble Season” subtly and deftly details how the innocent, joyfully creative play that children engage in (shooting marbles, backyard performances, and organizing treasure hunts) changes as they grow older and encounter name-calling naysayers, abusive bullies, and the value judgments of other kids.

Tina’s Mouth by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki: Tina Malhotra, a sophomore at the Yarborough Academy in Southern California, creates an existential diary for an honors English assignment in which she tries to determine who she is and where she fits in.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by
Lucy Knisley: Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a
gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly.
In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key
episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time
and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is
bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family
dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

Who is AC? by Hope Larson, illustrated by Tintin Pantoja: Meet Lin, an average teenage girl who is zapped with magical powers
through her cell phone. But just as superpowers can travel through the
ether, so can evil. And as Lin starts to get a handle on her powers
(while still observing her curfew!) she realizes she has to go head to
head with a nefarious villain who spreads his influence through binary

War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel Lafrance: Jacob is a 14-year-old Ugandan who is sent away to a boys’ school. Once
there, he assures his friend Tony that they need not be afraid — they
will be safe. But not long after, in the shadow of the night, the boys
are abducted. Marched into the jungle, they are brought to an encampment
of the feared rebel soldiers. They are told they must kill or be
killed, and their world turns into a terrifying struggle to endure and survive.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks: Jim Ottaviani returns
with an action-packed account of the three greatest primatologists of the
last century: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks: Charlie is the laid-back captain of the basketball team. Nate is the neurotic, scheming president of the robotics club. Their unlikely friendship nearly bites the dust when Nate declares war on the cheerleaders and they retaliate by making Charlie their figurehead in the ugliest class election campaign the school has ever seen.

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay: Harlot or hero? Liar or lady? There are two sides to every story. Meet
twenty-six of history’s most notorious women, and debate alongside
authors Yolen and Stemple–who appear in the book as themselves in a
series of comic panels–as to each girl’s guilt or innocence.

And here are a few to look for in the coming months.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff: Lovable ne’er-do-well Delilah Dirk is an Indiana Jones for the 19th
century. She has traveled to Japan, Indonesia, France, and even the New
World. Using the skills she’s picked up on the way, Delilah’s adventures
continue as she plots to rob a rich and corrupt Sultan in
Constantinople. With the aid of her flying boat and her newfound friend,
Selim, she evades the Sultan’s guards, leaves angry pirates in the
dust, and fights her way through the countryside. (August 2013)

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer: Told through real-life
journals, collages, lists, and drawings, this coming-of-age story
illustrates the transformation of an 18-year-old girl from a small-town
teenager into an independent city-dwelling college student. (September 2013)

Romeo and Juliet adapted by Gareth Hinds: Gareth Hinds’
stylish graphic adaptation of the Bard’s romantic tragedy offers modern
touches — including a diverse cast that underscores the story’s
universality. (September 2013)

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang: Boxers & Saints is
an innovative new graphic novel in two volumes – the parallel stories of
two young people caught up on opposite sides of a violent rift. American Born Chinese author
Gene Luen Yang brings his clear-eyed storytelling and trademark magical
realism to the complexities of the Boxer Rebellion and lays bare the
foundations of extremism, rebellion, and faith. (September 2013)

A Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel by Joseph Joffo, illustrated by Vincent Bailly: In 1941, ten-year-old Joseph Joffo and his older brother, Maurice,
must hide their Jewish heritage and undertake a long and dangerous
journey from Nazi-occupied Paris to reach their other brothers in the
free zone. (October 2013)

We’d really love it if you’d help flesh out these lists some. Do you know of any forthcoming or recently-published graphic novels for teens? Let us know in the comments.

*I (Kimberly) strongly considered changing the title of this post to
something other than “genrefied,” since graphic novels are not, by
definition, a genre. They’re a format. Ultimately, consistency won out.

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  1. says

    Go TLA!

    Great recommendations – several I've read and several I want to pick up.

    I'd recommend that teens try out Hawkeye if they're interested in superheroes and the current Young Avengers stuff is pretty good.

  2. says

    A note from the Brookline Public Library teen librarian:

    One small correction: Tokyopop is actually out of business, and thus is no longer publishing manga in the US. Vertical, VIZ, Yen Press, and Dark Horse all still do, though, and Yen Press picked up some of Tokyopop's old series and brought them back, happily. Just wanted to be sure you knew!

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